Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Ted Stevens' Death Has Hit Alaska So Hard


An outpouring of grief has washed over Alaskans regarding the tragic passing of Ted Stevens. The former U.S. Senator died last week in a plane crash near Dillingham. In addition to Stevens, that accident took the lives of Dana Tindall, of Anchorage, a telecommunications executive; Tindall's daughter, Corey, a high school student; Washington, D.C., lobbyist Bill Phillips, a former chief of staff for Stevens; and the pilot, Terry Smith, of Eagle River, a retired Alaska Airlines chief pilot. The survivors were former NASA Administrator and ex-Stevens staff member Sean O’Keefe; O’Keefe’s son Kevin, a student; Washington, D.C.-area lobbyist Jim Morhard; and Phillips’ son Willy, a student.

Signs of mourning for Ted Stevens are all over. Large streetside signs reading “GOD BLESS TED STEVENS” and “HE LOVED ALASKA AND WE WILL MISS HIM SEN TED STEVENS” appear four blocks apart in Anchorage. A funeral home runs a radio spot in heavy rotation urging people to sign the official guestbook at its parlor and receive a program about the former Senator’s life.

There are no fewer than four events marking the end of his life in Anchorage this week. There was a Catholic mass Monday; a viewing of his casket today at his old home church, All Saints Episcopal; a procession tonight following that viewing from All Saints to Anchorage Baptist Temple; and finally the official memorial service at that megachurch on Wednesday at 2 p.m. The Anchorage Baptist Temple can hold more than 4,500 people, and Vice President Joe Biden is expected to be among those in the pews.

Love and Admiration

There appear to be several strands in this mourning for “Uncle Ted,” who served as U.S. Senator for Alaska for 40 years. For his family and friends, there is the obvious love for a man who was dedicated to those close to him. For many others who crossed his path over the years, there is affection and admiration for his many fine qualities—intelligence, hard work, devotion to Alaska and the interests of Alaskans as he saw them. Alaskans also treasure the bluntness that carried its own kind of charm: the skillfully used temper, the Incredible Hulk and Tasmanian devil ties, the tough-guy statements like “Senator, that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.” If the legendary Governor Jay Hammond personified Alaskans’ image of themselves as independent pioneers who run trap lines and build their own cabins, Ted Stevens personified the Last Frontier’s scrappy fighter side.

Grief Over the Loss of a Glorious Past

The mourning over the man who worked in Alaska public life for well over five decades also seems to reflect a nostalgia for an earlier time—the era in the 1950s and early 1960s when statehood was won and people worked to build the new state. Back then, Alaskans seemed more united, the politics seemed purer, and the Great Land seemed greater. Ted Stevens was the last prominent link to that period, and some of the grief seems to come from that longing for a time that now seems more glorious and less complicated. (Mingled with that nostalgia may be a strong sense of regret among Alaska voters. Stevens only lost re-election after a jury returned guilty verdicts against him on seven felony counts eight days before the general election in 2008, and a poll taken after the case collapsed the next year reportedly showed that the then 85-year-old Stevens would have won 2-1 if the election were run again.)

Thanks, Ted, for the Spending and the Helpful Laws

Then there is the gratitude. Ted Stevens delivered for Alaskans. People usually focus on the dollars, and there were billions and billions of those. Stevens concentrated most of his Capitol Hill career on his service on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he ultimately ascended to the post of Chairman. In that capacity, he showered so much federal funding on Alaska that the state’s newspapers routinely used the term “Stevens money” without quotation marks to describe projects and programs from Washington, D.C. As Stevens said in his farewell Senate address, “Where there was nothing but tundra and forest, today there are now airports, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, hospitals, clinics, communications networks, research labs, and much, much more.”

Ted Stevens was the man who brought home the bacon (or the pork, as observers outside Alaska often called it). In the words of the writer Michael Carey, Stevens became “something of a frontier fertility god—worshipped, propitiated, feared."

But Alaskans tend to have some sense that Ted Stevens’ contributions to the state came in places other than the federal budget. As a Department of Interior official, Ted Stevens helped bring statehood. As a U.S. Senator, he played major roles in legislation that created Alaska Native corporations (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA), helped make Alaska’s fisheries sustainable, and allowed the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) that has brought so much wealth to Alaska’s economy.

Sophisticated insiders also recognize that Ted Stevens’ distinctive accomplishments in legislation required a shrewd sense of the possible, a knack for timing, a willingness to compromise, and even that seemingly un-Stevens quality of patience. As Mark Regan has noted, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1978 (ANILCA) depended on Stevens' brokering a very complex compromise, and the law would not have passed without Stevens' almost infinitely patient work. Regan has also pointed out that Stevens was almost entirely responsible for passing legislation rescuing the Native corporations allowing them to sell their net operating losses; this move was only possible because Stevens and his staff saw how to do it.

“If Ted Stevens hadn't been there, land issues might still be uncertain, many Native corporations might have gone under, and fishing rights might still be as snarled as they were in the early 1970s,” Regan told me. “We can remember and celebrate him not for bringing home so much bacon, but for working out arrangements which have made it a whole lot easier for us to live and work together as Alaskans.”

The writer Charles Homans observed that “In the view of his constituents he was less Alaska's senator than its patriarch, the leader who guided Alaska's transformation from a territorial outpost to a modern petrostate.”

Alaskans seem to understand the correctness of the observation of the Almanac of American Politics that “No other senator fills so central a place in his state’s public and economic life as Ted Stevens of Alaska; quite possibly no other senator ever has.”

Only a Career Member of Congress Focused on Alaska Issues Could Stay Above the Fray and Command Respect Across Alaska’s Factions

Ted Stevens only kept his status as an icon across the decades, however, because he didn’t do what at least one of his Senate staff members thought likely 35 years ago. In 1975, a Capitol Hill aide to Stevens told me that there was speculation among the staff that the Senator would ultimately go back to Alaska and cap his career by serving as Governor.

Stevens’ long-time Senate colleague Frank Murkowski did that in 2002, and that move ended up destroying his image in the state. Murkowski went from routine re-election over 22 years in the Senate to finishing third in his own Republican primary when he ran for re-election as Governor in 2006.

Sen. Murkowski kept winning re-election because as a Senator he did not have to make decisions that divided Alaskans. Gov. Murkowski lost badly when he ran for re-election as Governor in part because he made some tough calls, which had him take aggressive positions on fiscal questions like state budget cuts vs. reductions in Permanent Fund Dividends vs. bringing back the state income tax on individuals.

Ted Stevens, on the other hand, stayed an Alaska hero because he maintained a laser-like focus on fighting for Alaskans against the federal government. He worked to get federal dollars for Alaska projects and programs; he maneuvered to make federal law favorable to Alaskans; and he stood up for individual Alaska constituents against federal agencies. As the state’s fierce lobbyist, clever lawyer, and superombudsman, Stevens was almost a cross between a Western hero played by John Wayne and star attorney Perry Mason of TV fame, the kind of champion you want on your side when the stakes are high and the odds are long.

Stevens was a gladiator for Greatlanders in the arena of Washington, D.C. Even if he didn’t always win, Alaskans could always see that he was trying his hardest. As U.S. Senator for Alaska, Stevens was the captain of the Last Frontier team, or even the chieftain of the Alaska tribe.

All that would have gone out the window if Ted Stevens had left the U.S. Senate to return to Alaska as Governor. As the state’s chief executive, he would have had to takes sides among Alaska’s warring clans on various issues, particularly fiscal matters. Stevens’ popularity would have plummeted, especially if falling oil prices forced him to make tough calls on budget and tax issues. The diminutive scrapper’s famously irritable and pugnacious personality would have not have worn as well with Alaskans if he had become the state’s chief executive. Serving as Governor would have made it much harder for Stevens to hang onto the idealized view of Alaska society he seemed to have as a Senator, which allowed him to believe that all boats would rise together if he just kept pouring enough federal dollars into the ocean. As Governor, Stevens would no longer have been “Uncle Ted”—he could easily have become in many Alaskans’ eyes “that knucklehead in Juneau.”

Ted Stevens was a smart man who worked hard for a long time to promote the best interests of Alaska as he saw them. His stature as an Alaska legend was immeasurably aided by his decision to stay in the U.S. Senate, where as a top-ranking federal official he could best fight the feds on behalf of his constituents.

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